Some people believe that opera represents the highest form of artistic achievement in music. These people are wrong. I've tried many times to understand the appeal of opera but I always end up wondering if the singer is as pompous as he sounds. But with all the fuss made about opera, there must be something to it, right? Wisely, the program directors of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic have chosen to showcase the highlights of many popular operas instead of putting on one single opera in its entirety. A Whitman Sampler of opera, if you will (and you may). This way, listeners are sure to hear only the choicest, most familiar and likable melodies in the operatic repertoire. Not a crunchy frog in the bunch!
Opera, which is the plural in Latin for opus, which means "work", which is what it takes to listen to an entire opera, started with an Italian guy named Monteverdi back in 1607. He had a successful music drama by the name of Orfeo and soon, opera became all the rage. The success of opera led to the castration of nearly four thousand young boys, all in an effort to maintain their angelic voices (at last! proof that opera is evil!), often whether they wanted to or not. While opera is not new, it is also not very old. Who hasn't heard West Side Story or even The Who's Tommy? Although some would argue that these do not qualify as opera, such people are not writing this article. In the world of opera, just about anything goes! And where anything goes, this usually means sex. Lots of sex. Yes, that's the dirty little secret of opera. Read a synopsis of just about any opera and you'll think you picked up a transcript from the Jerry Springer show. And where there is sex, there is money. Puccini, who wrote Madame Butterfly, and La boheme, made his first million from his operas and spent the rest of his life at a lakeside villa hunting birds. Giusseppe Verdi made more that a few bucks with such beloved works as Don Carlos, Othello, and Rigoletto. It should also be noted that Verdi has the distinction of being the only major composer in history who was also a successful farmer.
And then there's Wagner. Either you love him or you hate him. Since the quotes about people hating him are much more interesting, let's start with those. Mark Twain wrote, "Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds." Rossini, another opera composer, stated that, "Wagner has good moments, but bad quarter hours." Nietzsche wrote, "Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a disease?" For a select few, the Wagnerian opera represents the highest form of the highest form, art as a perfect synthesis of music and theatre. For the rest of us, it's just hour after hour of fat people shouting at each other in German (no offense to the gravity-enhanced). Wagner was born in 1813 and spent much of his early years playing hooky from school. When he was fifteen, he heard Beethoven's 9th symphony, and it changed his life. Then and there, he determined to write such great, life changing music for others. However, unlike almost every other composer that ever lived, Wagner wasn't very good at playing any instrument. He even sang badly! This is a definite handicap when it comes to writing music. Wagner soon enrolled in the University of Leipzig where he majored in drinking and gambling (he once gambled away his mothers entire pension… but won it back on a double or nothing bet). His first few operas were failures, leaving him with immense debts. Always a man of honor, Wagner would pay these debts by triumphantly leaving town in the middle of the night. He did this so many times that he became a wanted man in many countries. His wife stuck by him through these difficult early years, and he repaid her by having countless affairs (hey, even a President needs a role model). Are you beginning to get the idea that this isn't the guy you want your daughter to marry?
Wagner eventually started having success with his operas, allowing him time to write angry tracts denouncing capitalism and insulting Jews (Hitler loved Wagner, saying that, "Whoever wants to understand National Socialistic Germany must know Wagner.") He finally struck it rich when he found the favor of a mentally unstable king and his very stable pocketbook. From this point on, Wagner worked to create an epic saga known as The Ring Cycle (Frodo Baggins, anyone?) about a magic ring that everyone is fighting to possess. Everyone includes dwarves, gods, mermaids, giants, women with horns and gold breastplates (he invented that one), and satyrs. As you can imagine, the plot is rather convoluted (triple word score!) The completed work runs a mere nineteen hours but does include "The Ride of the Valkyries", also known as "Kill the Wabbit". It is also during this time that he became a bit eccentric himself. He started bathing for hours in a tub of perfume and he became fond of wearing silk clothes that can best be described as "a pale and delicate shade of pink". I'll stop right here, thank you very much. Despite being an indisputable jerk, one would be a fool to deny Wagner's influence on the world of music. He developed new forms of musical expression and spawned many devout followers who carried his influence in their own music. One would be hard pressed (and we all know how painful that can be) to imagine the musical world of the late 19th century without the spirit of Wagner.
I am relived to say (but not as relieved as the musicians) that the Philharmonic will NOT be playing all nineteen hours of The Ring Cycle, but there will probably be one or two arias from that work. Huh? Oh, an "aria" is not an astrological sign, but rather the opera/vocal version of a guitar solo (ask for it by name!). There will also be excerpts from the works of Verdi (the farmer), Puccini (the fowler) and many others. I would hazard to bet that even those lowbrows for whom the word "opera" is anathema (I've been a member since 1971!) will enjoy this weekend's performance.
Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman